Hands-down the most popular book series in my 1980s North-Central Mississippi homeschool group (group motto: “homespun wisdom weavers”) was L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, an eight book series about an orphan girl growing up in rural Canada in the early 20th century. Red-haired, green-eyed orphan Anne steps off the train and wins over the stodgy small-town folks of Prince Edward Island. Was Anne-with-an-e Shirley the original manic pixie dream girl? Clearly we had our fingers on the pulse of the zeitgeist before Garden State was even a twinkle in Zach Braff’s eye.
The series had several appealing aspects. Old-fashioned: horses, puffed sleeves, raspberry cordial, one-room schoolhouses. Exotic: unfamiliar places like “Halifax” and “Prince Edward Island” (though not TOO exotic – it’s Canada, mind you). Orphans: love ‘em (see also: Annie! Oliver! Harry!). Gingers: the other Harry! Geri Halliwell! Ron Weasley! We meet dozens of loveable and unloveable characters, but Anne’s our girl. Anne rates some classic manic pixie dream girl traits – she’s quirky, unpredictable, artistic, dramatic, cute:
“an extraordinary observer might have seen that the chin was very pointed and pronounced; that the big eyes were full of spirit and vivacity; that the mouth was sweet-lipped and expressive; that the forehead was broad and full; in short, our discerning extraordinary observer might have concluded that no commonplace soul inhabited the body of this stray woman-child.” (Anne of Green Gables, Chapter 2).
For the workaday locals, Anne is mystifying. In her eyes, “Barry’s Pond” turns into “the Lake of Shining Waters”; the “Avenue” becomes “the White Way of Delight”. Anne’s romantic streak can get her into trouble from time to time, but gradually wins over the Islanders.
Girl, you love drama.
Unlike other manic pixie dream girls, Anne develops as a person on her own terms. She adapts to life with Matthew & Marilla Cuthbert on P.E.I., but never lets herself be characterized solely in the eyes of others. On Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island, people are defined primarily by their families. Cuthberts are solid, predictable, serious; Barrys are strict, unimaginative, loyal. When schoolteacher Anne tries to win over hostile little Anthony Pye (from the generally disliked and odious Pye family), she’s given some wisdom from neighbor Mrs Rachel Lynde:
“Well, you can never tell about a Pye,” said Mrs. Rachel cautiously. “They go by contraries, like dreams, often as not. (Anne of Avonlea, Chapter 5)
As an orphan, Anne comes from outside the Avonlea social structure; as a creative, imaginative young person, she recognizes her chance to define herself:
“Oh, what I KNOW about myself isn’t really worth telling,” said Anne eagerly. “If you’ll only let me tell you what I IMAGINE about myself you’ll think it ever so much more interesting.” (Anne of Green Gables, Chapter 5)
Anne may hear the gossip others share about her, but she talks – and talks and talks, one complaint her taciturn new guardians have about her – over their complaints and into their hearts (aww!).
Most manic pixie dream girls are viewed from a male protagonist’s perspective, and Anne does have her admirers.
Rather than playing coy, she takes a direct approach:
Gilbert reached across the aisle, picked up the end of Anne’s long red braid, held it out at arm’s length and said in a piercing whisper:
Then Anne looked at him with a vengeance!She did more than look. She sprang to her feet, her bright fancies fallen into cureless ruin. She flashed one indignant glance at Gilbert from eyes whose angry sparkle was swiftly quenched in equally angry tears.
“You mean, hateful boy!” she exclaimed passionately. “How dare you!”
And then–thwack! Anne had brought her slate down on Gilbert’s head and cracked it–slate not head–clear across. (Anne of Green Gables, Chapter 14)
Following this adorable meet-cute, Anne proceeds to cold-shoulder poor Gil as he loves her from afar, until SPOILER ALERT she realizes that ignoring him so hard keeps him at the top of her mind…and heart. This method was a revelation to us North-Central Mississippi homespun wisdom weavers, and the I-ignore-him-because-I-like-him approach remains popular. She takes her time with the romance, focusing on school and her writing career before realizing that she can’t have it all. Her choice is hardly bittersweet; her priorities become her community and the people she’s come to love on P.E.I.
Even post-wedding, Anne’s story isn’t just a happily ever after fairy tale. We see her marry and settle down in Anne’s House of Dreams and Anne of Ingleside. The two final books in the series move on to focus more on Anne’s children, as Montgomery no doubt recognized that her young audience would be more interested in protagonists closer to their own age. Still, Montgomery didn’t shy away from difficult topics. Anne suffers the death of her first newborn in Anne’s House of Dreams and stress over her marriage in Anne of Ingleside. Rilla of Ingleside encompasses World War I, offering tragedy with a side of dark humor. As Anne grows old, she does so with grace, maintaining her humor and imagination – more than just a manic pixie dream girl.
So should you read it this summer? Of course! It’s not just for homeschoolers, Canada-heads and fans of animal husbandry (although you’ll get that too!). But full disclosure: I saw the movie before I read the books. Granted, it is one of the best-cast film adaptations of children’s literature. And realtalk, dear readers of The Wheelhouse Review, as compelling as I have made this review, you’re not likely to go out and power through all eight books in the series. It’s August, so take it easy and track down DVDs of Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea for seven hours of viewing enjoyment.